Scalars, Vectors, Matrices and Tensors

Published Categorized as Linear Algebra

Let’s get started with Linear algebra. The understanding of linear algebra is a must for better comprehension and effective implementation of Neural Networks. Getting started (in a black-box way) with deep learning libraries such as TensorFlow and PyTorch should not be difficult after following detailed tutorials. Tons of them are readily available on the internet. However, to understand the inside working of the neural networks and to comprehend the research papers we need to make ourselves comfortable with the maths (linear algebra, probability, calculus) that collectively build the neural networks.

In this article, I’ll discuss the fundamentals of linear algebra: scalars, vector, matrices and tensors.


Scalars are the physical quantities that are described by magnitude only. In other words, scalars are those quantities that are represented just by their numerical value. Examples include volume, density, speed, age, etc. Scalar variables are denoted by ordinary lower-case letters (eg. x, y, z). The continuous space of real-value scalars is denoted by \mathbb{R}. For a scalar variable, the expression x\mathbb{R} denotes that x is a real value scalar.

Mathematical notation: a\epsilon\mathbb{R}, where a is learning rate


A vector is an array of numbers or a list of scalar values. The single values in the array/list of a vector are called the entries or components of the vector. Vector variables are usually denoted by lower-case letters with a right arrow on top (\overset{\rightarrow}{x}, \overset{\rightarrow}{y}, \overset{\rightarrow}{z}) or bold-faced lower case letters (x, y, z).

Mathematical notation: \overset{\rightarrow}{x}\epsilon \mathbb{R}^{n} , where x is a vector. The expression says that the vector \overset{\rightarrow}{x} has n real-value scalars.

\overset{\rightarrow}{x} = \begin{bmatrix} x_{1}\\ x_{2}\\ x_{3}\\ .\\ .\\ x_{n} \end{bmatrix}

where, x_{1}, x_{2}, ..., x_{n} are the entries/components of the vector \overset{\rightarrow}{x}.

A list of scalar values, concatenated together in a column (for the sake of representation) become a vector.

Creating vectors in NumPy:

#loading numpy
import numpy as np

# creating a row vector
row_v = np.array([1, 2, 3])

#creating a column vector
column_v = np.array([[1],


Like vectors generalize scalars from order zero to order one, matrices generalize vectors from order one to order two. In other words, Matrices are 2-D array of numbers. They are represented by bold-faced capital letters (A, B, C).

Mathematical notation: A\epsilon \mathbb{R}^{m*n} means that the matrix A is of size m*n where m is rows and n is columns.

Visually, a matrix A with size 3*4 can be illustrated as:

A = \begin{bmatrix} a_{11} & a_{12} & a_{13} & a_{14} \\ a_{21} & a_{22} & a_{23} & a_{24}\\ a_{31} & a_{32} & a_{33} & a_{34} \end{bmatrix}

Creating matrices in NumPy:

# Creating a 3*3 matrix
matrix = np.array([[1, 2, 3],
                   [4, 5, 6],
                   [7, 8, 9]])
Converting a grayscale image to a vector

Real-world use case: The learning algorithms need numbers to work on. Data such as images have to be converted to an array of numbers before the data is fed to the algorithms. In the above illustration, an image of 50*50 is first converted to a 50*50 matrix. Here we are supposing that the image is grayscale. Thus the value of a pixel ranges from 0 to 255. The resulting image is then converted to a vector of dimension 2500. This way an image is converted to a vector.


Tensors can be simply understood as an n-dimensional array with n greater than 2. Vectors are first order tensors and matrices are second order tensors.

The mathematical notation of tensors is similar to that of matrices. Only the number of letters that define the dimension are greater than two. A_{i,j,k} defines a tensor A with i,j,k dimensions.

Creating Tensor in NumPy:

tensor = np.array([
  [[1,2,3],    [4,5,6],    [7,8,9]],
  [[10,11,12], [13,14,15], [16,17,18]]
  [[19,20,21], [22,23,24], [25,26,27]],
Converting a RGB image to a vector

We’ll be dealing with tensors while working with color image and video data. When a color image is converted to an array of numbers the dimension will be something like height, width and color axis. The color axis basically defines a different set of numbers for Red-Green-Blue channels. For each color channel, we’ll be creating a matrix based on the pixel value. Then the resulting matrices are unrolled to form a vector.

Final thoughts:

We saw how vectors generalize scalars to a 1-D array, and how matrices generalize vectors to form a 2-D array. One term that is common to scalars, vectors and matrices is “tensor”. A scalar is 0th order tensor, a vector is 1st order tensor and a matrix is 2nd order tensor.

This articles just scratched the surface of Linear algebra. In my next article, I’ll discuss about some important operations that are performed on Scalars, Vectors, Matrices and tensors.

I’ll see you guys in the next one.

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By Rabindra Lamsal

Ph.D. Candidate (Computer Science) at the University of Melbourne.


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